Saturday, November 15, 2008

Resto Review: My Favourite Restaurants outside Canada

I have itchy feet. Can't stay in one place too long without booking my next trip. As will become increasingly clear through my blog, I have a particular devotion to Paris - which I've visited four times. French food, in my opinion, is the best in the world. Most people who've never stepped foot in France, or even in a French bistro outside France, may scoff at the size of the portions and the pretentious service. As with everything, there may be some kernel of truth to the stereotype.
But in my opinion, the reason why French cuisine is lauded around the world is because they keep things simple and let the food speak for itself. See the image of one of my favourite meals at Brasserie Bofinger in Paris. On the left, Chateaubriand steak with frites et haricots verts (green beans). On the right, magret de canard (duck) with mashed potatoes. Some fresh crusty bread, and chilled rosé wine. That's it. The formula is basic and it works: ingredients must be fresh, in season, and cooked simply. No extra frills, no extra oil. The French have got it right. That said, there are restaurants all around the world that have mastered the magic formula and made it their own. Here are just a few of the fab eateries that I can't put out of my head.

Les Philosophes in Paris

Full disclaimer: I arrived at this "bar-restaurant" ravished and moody. It was late, I was indecisive. Finally my husband and I happened upon Les Philosophes and decided to trust my father's acid test (Is the restaurant empty? Move on. Is it full? Trust the diners). So we walked in and found a spot just by the sidewalk. What followed was a typical French meal that sent my bad mood packing. Tender beef tenderloin (don't ask for well done in France, s'il-vous plait), hot mustard, potatoes, and crisp green beans, with a carafe of the best house wine. I can't remember the salad, nor the dessert.
But I do remember - fittingly at a resto called Les Philosophes - the French and German men one table over who got into a loud (English) debate about whether children are worth having. At the table next to ours were a gay couple from California who had packed up their jobs in Hong Kong and were travelling the world for one year. They, too, were bickering, until my husband I began discussing what we would eat and they interrupted, unable to hold themselves back from offering their own recommendations.

Nobu in Las Vegas

When my husband planned a Valentine's Day trip to Las Vegas, one of his favourite travel destinations, I was hesitant. I'd never been there before and didn't really have any desire to go. I'm not a gambler and casinos put me off. Finally I told him, it's this simple: I won't have fun in Las Vegas unless I try out Nobu. Fortunately for me, he surprised me with a reservation. Truth be told, my husband doesn't like sushi and he doesn't remember this meal as fondly as I do. But I can still taste the black cod with miso and the spicy tuna rolls, the fish was so tender it fell apart on my tongue. Then we went to Pure nightclub and partied with Paris Hilton at her birthday and the night took a turn for the worst. But that's another story.

Bouchon in Las Vegas

Thomas Keller is arguably one of the best chefs in the world, so when my husband booked Bouchon as our Valentine's Day dinner reservation, I was - as the British put it - well chuffed. Still, some googling on Tripadvisor, Chowhound and other foodie sites put me on guard. Keller barely shows his face at the restaurant, critics said. Perhaps they were expecting too much. Bouchon was everything it promised to be as a French bistro. We had French onion soup; oysters; poulet roti (roasted chicken) with Savoy cabbage and forest mushrooms; mussels and frites; with creme caramel to cap the night. Nothing gets on my nerves more than a chef trying to get creative with crème caramel. There's a reason why the subtle vanilla bean has stood the test of time. Sometimes, the classics should be left alone. Amazingly for a land-locked state, the seafood betrayed no fishy smell. The chicken was also juicy, the soup aromatic, and the frites crispy. Critics go home. For what it's worth, my husband preferred Bouchon over Nobu by far.

Dimitri's restaurant in Ammoudi Bay, Santorini

We arrived at Ammoudi Bay, the lowest point in Santorini, just as the sun was setting. We were told it was the place to be at that time of day. The decor was simple, it's greatest asset - the fantastic view. For anyone visiting Santorini, it's the last restaurant at the end. If you still haven't found it, Dimitri is the owner, his wife is Canadian. She told us matter-of-factly that she arrived in Santorini many years ago, and never left. I envied her then, and still do.
Dimitri himself was cooking the fish on the vast grill as we waited for a table. When I goggled at the scale (ahem, pun intended) of the massive grouper near the grill, Dimitri responded, deadpan, "This is not that large, they are often bigger."
With the fishing boats lapping against the water, mere metres from our table, we had no qualms about the freshness of the fish.
If memory serves me right - we had the lavraki (sea bass), fried white eggplant and retsina.

Supper Club in Amsterdam

If you didn't know it was there, it would be easy to pass by the Supper Club. Tucked away in a dark alley, this restaurant is just off Kalverstraat, minutes from the Dam Square. The premise is simple: it's a revival of the retro supper club -- but the execution is modern, and fantastical.
Something of a cross between a martini bar, a a fusion restaurant, and an after-hours lounge, reservations are a must.
From the moment you step through the door, everything is shrouded in mystery. If losing control makes you nervous, best to skip this spot. The host leads you downstairs to the bar, where all the guests are asked to mingle until they are summoned. The staff then escort you to your "table," a cross between a banquette and a bed that has forces you to take your shoes off and crawl into place.
Imagine the nicest wedding you've ever been to, add $10,000 more in flowers, paint the entire place white, and bathe the entire room in pink spotlights, and you have the idea. I won't ruin the surprise if you decide to visit the Supper Club, which has locations in Istanbul, Singapore, and San Francisco. But I will say, arrive with an open mind, as you will be served several courses of a set menu they won't reveal until it's set in front of you.
And be sure to leave the earplugs at home as a world-class DJ will be spinning the latest and greatest. And when you least expect it, the live entertainment will begin. To be sure, the Supper Club is an expensive night out, but you will be thoroughly entertained for more than three hours.

Ristorante Buca di Bacco in Positano

This restaurant is like something out of a dream. Located in the famous hotel Buca di Bacco, the open-air dining area looks out over the Amalfi coast's rugged terrain and picturesque beauty. No small wonder Positano has been the stomping ground of the rich and famous for many decades. On our first night in Positano, we were lucky enough to have our hotel concierge make reservations for us. Dinner on that first night was so good that we returned two days later. My memory is somewhat murky, as this trip was about a year-and-a-half ago, but I do remember that over those two meals we sampled pasta with pesto; fritto misto di mare (mixed fried fresh seafood); grilled vegetables like pearl onions, spinach, red peppers; a delicate minature lemon cake topped with lemon-scented icing and more. Lemons are featured prominently not only on dessert menus in the Amalfi Coast but also in the decor and ceramic ware. The head-swirling limoncello, a lemon liquor meant to be served chilled, is another staple in Amalfitan households. In fact, the Amalfi lemon has officially been recognized as a Protected Geographic Indication.

Monjul in Paris

I never got to thank the concierge at our hotel in Paris, but it is to his credit that we happened upon Monjul. On our last night there, we asked for a romantic, but trendy spot that was within walking distance of our lodgings in the Marais district.
"Would you like to have some fun?" he asked, and I swear his eyes twinkled. "Try something new? Something out of the box?"
Yes. Yes. And yes. The French have always been decades ahead of North America (don't get your underwear in a knot, it's true, particularly in culinary circles).
Enter chef Julien Agobert, who opened his small but chic restaurant Monjul in 2007 to much critical acclaim.
Every one of his courses is served on a black slate tile with a dose of tongue-in-cheek humour.
In the first picture here you'll see a vegetable terrine designed to look like an artist's palette.
In the second photo, there are mashed potatoes in the clear glass bottle, with parmesan mousse resting on top like the foam on a glass of milk (a tip of the hat to the molecular gastronomy movement,) cod with parsley, and a scoop of cabbage.
Admittedly, the cod was a bit overcooked for our tastes, but we were in such awe of the chef's artistic and culinary genius we were hesitant to ask for it to be refired. Every plate arrived at our table plated with such careful thought and care that we questioned our own palates. And finally, a deconstructed tarte tatin, which the menu warned came without instructions. Look carefully and you'll see discs of salted caramel, a slab of puff pastry, a hunk of caramelized apples, a streak of caramel sauce, and a moon of French vanilla ice cream. Every plate was amusing to the bouche but to me as well. Now, tell me, how often do you see that sort of sense of humour at a North American restaurant?

1 comment:

Ryan Kay said...

I was browsing blogs and came across yours, I also LOVE FRENCH FOOD! My husband and I travel a lot also. We also LOVE NOBU like you! It's wonderful. If your ever down in Florida, Cabo San Lucas, and in Italy I have many GREAT food choices. ENJOY the Holidays